Cowboys Don't Know How to Say Goodbye
May 8, 2012
I have dreamed about you every night since you left without my telling you goodbye. I saw you inside a trailer, looking over your shoulder at my waving, sobbing grandchildren. The miles pass, carrying you farther and farther away from your home. In my dreams, you ask me, “What did I do to deserve this? Why did you send me away with strangers? Didn’t I deserve to spend the rest of my days with you?”
I don’t have good answers to your questions, of course. Truth is, you did everything that I ever asked you to do – most of it willingly. You do deserve a good life. But you were visiting my son’s family when I was asked if you were for sale.
You were close enough for me to see occasionally, but not close enough for me to have to look you in the eye when I said yes. I chose pragmatism over what I saw as sentimentality. My son seemed to understand that I didn’t have the courage to see you leave and didn’t call until you were already gone.
Growing up on a farm, I saw lots of births and deaths: cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, you name it. I learned to suck it up and go on. My father and grandfather always told me that living and dying and buying & selling are part of life, even horse life. My grandfather also said that a horse that isn’t being ridden needs a new home. That, if anything, is my excuse for letting you go.
You see, you and I are getting old. Yes, I know that seventeen is not necessarily old for a horse, but it is me that is getting too old (or too lazy) to keep you exercised, groomed and busy. The kids weren’t riding you anymore, and I was taught that a horse should never be allowed to get bored or fat.
The people who bought you plan to ride and rope. I like to think you will enjoy that – that you will be healthier in your old age if you keep exercising.
Just after you left, I decided to travel back down a trail that you and I traveled together more than twelve years ago – a trip that changed my life for the better. I owe you for that … and for so much more.
As I looked at the landmarks along that trail, I had visions of you and me traveling there more than a decade earlier. Stirring those memories probably started the dreams. I have not forgotten that you carried me on that long trip across part of Texas, leading a covered wagon and other riders.
You walked so fast that we had to stop and wait on the others. On most days, we rode ahead to find a camp for the night and returned, making the miles you traveled more than the other horses and mules.
I hobbled you at night, but you soon got the hang of hobbles and could travel with them on. But you never went far away from my bedroll. I awoke most mornings to your nicker or the sound of your grazing. You could have stepped on my bedroll (and me) anytime, but you never did.
I also remember that hot day on the trail when you tried to follow me into a store in downtown Decatur. I remember when trucks honked as we traveled down a busy highway. You just eyed them with disdain, never acknowledging their efforts to frighten you with as much as a swish of your tail. Just like you did when you and I and a grandkid or two rode in those parades.
And yes, I remember those earlier team penning days. During our first competition, I rode you so hard that you began to shake. You stumbled and almost fell in the arena. You leaned against the side of the trailer all the way home to keep from falling.
I apologized for that, but please let me say I’m sorry again. I remember the night you had colic and fell against the barn door. I got you up and walked you into the wee hours. And when you got an infection from a shot, I trotted beside you for two miles every day for a month. But, of course, that pales when compared to what you have done for me.
Just after that trip across Texas, you and I started team roping. I could almost hear you talking way back then. You said I was too old to team rope.
People told me that I needed a trained roping horse if I was ever going to learn the sport. Green ropers and green horses don’t mix. But I said that you and I would learn together or we wouldn’t learn at all. And we did.
I don’t think you really liked roping, especially in those early days. But that makes it all the more important that you learned for me.
I remember pulling wet pads and blankets from your back hundreds of times. I remember those moonlit nights when we crossed the creek bridge after roping under arena lights. I was angry with you on many of those nights.
There was a lot of rearing and acting up on your part. You never threw me, but I did fall off once and had more than one steer drag me off. I blamed you most of the time. I belatedly learned that those things were my fault, not yours. That’s when we started to win.
And how about that night I left you ground-tied in the arena as we pulled horn wraps off the roping steers? You were tired and hot and decided to head to the house without me. I whistled as you headed down the lane. You stopped. I yelled, “Back up”, and you retreated to the spot where I had left you. Who says horses can’t understand humans?
I remember the look in your eyes that night we won our first saddle. You looked sort of silly, standing there with two saddles on your back. I just know you asked me, “Are you satisfied? Can we quit roping now?”
Remember that spring roundup on the great Moorhouse ranch? We got to see real cowboys in action. You made great friends with your trailer buddy on the way out to the ranch and wouldn’t let that smaller gelding out of your sight.
When we threw you and the little gelding in with the Moorhouse remuda, you circled your buddy all through the night, ears pinned, daring any other horse to bite or kick your friend. As recently as a year ago, you protected the mare you shared a pasture with from a runaway stud and got yourself all cut up in the effort.
My daddy and granddaddy said that every man has a right to own one really good horse in his lifetime. I have had horses almost continually since I was nine. I have never owned a perfect one.
A perfect horse can spin both directions on a dime, do effortless rollbacks, stick his tail in the ground on a slide, squat like a cutter when looking at a cow, and come at a gallop every time I whistle. And the mane should always lie in place on the left side.
You weren’t perfect, but you came closer to a perfect horse than I ever came to being a real cowboy. You were and always will be my great horse of a lifetime. And you helped to raise my grandkids.
I have pictures of you in the book we share, and there is a nice painting of you and me on my wall. I look at that painting most days and remember. I will never forget.
Goodbye, old friend.
I found some solace and assuagement of guilt in these words from Waddie Mitchell, cowboy bard . . . performed with Don Edwards and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and released as A Prairie Portrait.
For horses and dogs and good cowboys have hearts full of gumption and try,
They’re chuck full of grit and don’t know how to quit but they don’t know the concept goodbye . . .
For horses and dogs and good cowboys don’t know how to tell you a lie
Just don’t take it wrong when one day they’re gone
Tain’t in ‘em to tell you goodbye.